HIGH POINT — It’s been nearly 17 years since Bill Chaney erected a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at the Antietam National Battlefield, and the giant monument continues to draw enemy fire.
Most recently, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a resolution to remove the controversial statue, clearing the way for the Senate to consider the proposal.
Chaney, a 74-year-old High Point man who’s fiercely proud of his Southern heritage — and has a distant family tie to Lee himself — bristles at the idea of removing the statue.
“That’s sick — that’s really sick,” Chaney said this week. “What can I say? These people are crazy.”
Chaney, who has lived in High Point for about six years, commissioned the statue in 2003, when he lived in Lothian, Maryland. He and a couple of business partners owned a large piece of land in Sharpsburg that bordered “Bloody Lane” — the scene of particularly fierce fighting during the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862 — and they decided to erect the monument to Lee on their land.
The idea behind the statue was not only to honor Chaney’s famous ancestor, he said, but to give Lee’s Confederate States Army troops more representation at the historic battlefield site.
“There are only a few statues of Confederates,” Chaney said. “Everything else is Yankee.”
According to the National Park Service, there are 96 monuments at Antietam, the majority of which are Union. After the war, the former Confederacy was so devastated that veterans couldn’t raise the money necessary to build monuments, the NPS explains on its website.
Chaney’s monument may have given the Confederates more representation at Antietam, but it also stirred up a hornets’ nest.
“Some people objected to the scale of the monument and others to the symbolism of honoring a man who took up arms against his own government in a war that was very much about the injustice of slavery,” The Washington Post wrote in a 2011 article about the monument.
Indeed, the 24-foot-tall monument is hard to miss. On top of its 12-foot granite base stands a 12-foot bronze statue of Lee riding his horse, Traveller, and holding a pair of binoculars.
In addition, critics pointed out what they saw as historical inaccuracies — the fact that the monument is positioned in an area believed to have been controlled by the Union during the battle, rather than by the Confederates; and the fact that Lee had injured his wrists at the time of the battle and was moving around by ambulance rather than on horseback.
Chaney acknowledged Lee’s injury, but scoffed at the criticism.
“Who the hell’s gonna put up a statue of a man with broken arms?” he said. “That’s just dumb.”
Chaney also addressed the slavery issue, arguing that the Civil War was not so much about slavery as it was high tariffs, which led to the South’s desire to secede. Historians have debated that point for generations, and while tariffs certainly helped divide the North and the South, it’s also true that the states that issued declarations of secession specifically cited slavery as a major reason.
Chaney also pointed out that Lee — whom he said he considers “the greatest man of the 19th century” — actually owned very few slaves, and most of the ones he owned were left to him by his father-in-law. The plaque on Chaney’s monument states that Lee “was personally against secession and slavery, but decided his duty was to fight for his home and the universal right of every people to self-determination.”
Historians dispute Chaney’s view of Lee, portraying him as a cruel slavemaster who not only punished his slaves physically but separated slave families. Also, despite a stipulation in his father-in-law’s will that the slaves were to be freed within five years, Lee petitioned state courts to try to extend that window of time.
It’s those types of contradictions that have led to the controversy surrounding the monument of Lee.
In 2005, for example, when the NPS bought the land and the statue from Chaney, rumors flew about the monument’s eventual removal, but it survived. In 2017, following a violent gathering of white nationalists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, a bill was introduced calling for the monument to be removed, but the bill stalled, and again the monument held its ground.
This past summer, as a series of Black Lives Matter protests swept across the country, unknown vandals scrawled “BLM” and “You lost the war” on the Antietam monument.
And now comes House Resolution 970, the latest attempt to remove Chaney’s beloved statue. The House passed the bill on Dec. 10, but the Senate has not yet taken action on it.
Chaney acknowledged the monument’s removal is a possibility, but said he obviously hopes that won’t happen.
“Have you seen that statue?” he said. “It’s absolutely beautiful.”
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